What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

People holding the Edinburgh Fringe logo, but spaced out.

Skip to: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho; Skank; Watson: The Final Problem; Mimi’s Suitcase; Northanger Abbey; Screen 9; Mustard; The Great Gatsby; WSTL: Epistles; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; Could it be Magic?; Dahpna Baram: Unmuted; Those People: a play about QAnon

Let’s give credit where it is due. Two months ago the picture for Edinburgh Fringe was as bleak as can be. The mood amongst everybody was that Fringe 2021 might not be officially cancelled, but it was as good as cancelled. But Edinburgh Fringe and most of the major venues held their nerve, and in the last month has managed an impressive turnaround – given the circumstances. At the time of writing, Edinburgh Fringe has 675 registrations. This is far less than pre-Covid levels and only slightly ahead of Brighton Fringe, but compared to a month ago when the number of confirmed acts barely made triple figures, you’ve got to hand it to them.

But the fact remains that the Edinburgh Fringe has been hit much harder than fringes such as Brighton or Buxton. And whilst everybody has pulled together for the latter fringes, the same cannot be said for the big one. Most controversially: the Scottish Government’s highly questionable decision to enforce two-metre social distancing for theatres when pubs could have one. This rule has now been relaxed, and may even be dropped completely in time for most of the festival, but not before numerous acts and venues ran out of patience and opted to perform south of the border instead. On a more positive note, the Scottish Government has provided some support to many of the bigger venues to have some sort of festival. It could have been worse – but whilst Brighton and Buxton Fringes did have a feel similar to a normal year, it looks like Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will only be a shadow of its pre-2020 former self.

However, there is still enough in the programme for me to pull together a list of recommendations. Before then, however, let’s look at the fringe as a whole.

What to expect at Edinburgh

I did this for Brighton, and I’m going to do this again for Edinburgh. Whatever you want to see, there will be a lot of differences from before. These, I think, are going to be the biggest ones:

The diminished fringe: Already said before, but will say it again. Brighton and Buxton managed to pass off as normal fringes with a 40% reduction in size, but you cannot disguise an 80% reduction. This means that Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is going to be lot more like Brighton Fringe 2020, where the object of the game is to simply put on any kind of fringe. On the other hand, you have to hand it to the performers who braved the uncertainty and come anyway. The few performers here deserve a lot of respect.

The REALLY last-minute fringe: You think that Brighton Fringe left it to the last moment to put together a programme? That’s nothing compared to Edinburgh. When tickets went on sale a month before fringe opening, there were just 170 registrations – and had the numbers stayed that way, it would have been a disaster. However, that was partly because The Space and Summerhall were the only two notable venues who’d announced their programmes. Most of the venues announced their programmes later, but Edinburgh only edged ahead of Brighton with one week to go. Brighton managed to keep together with a programme known only a month in advance – we will shortly find out if Eidnburgh can get away with just a week in advance.

The socially distanced fringe: Anyone who’s been to Brighton or Buxton Fringes should be used to this by now, but for those who aren’t, you can expect two different approaches. For the “pop-up” venues (and by pop-up I mean the whole structure being created, not simply moving seats and lighting into an existing room), expect them to be designed to allow seating spread out over a larger area – Pleasance and Summerhall, for example, are using their main courtyards for performance spaces when they would otherwise be social hubs. Indoor spaces are likely to be a bit more of a mixture – they may go for Tetris-style seating arrangements to fit booked groups (like Sweet did in Brighton), or they may put fewer tickets on sale than their are seats.

The hybrid fringe: Like Brighton Fringe 2020 and 2021, this programme is a mixture of in-person and online shows. There has never been a rule against online entries; it’s just that until last year no-one saw a reason to do this. This one has not been without controversy, and not everyone’s happy of the level of registration fees, but the online programme at Brighton Fringe got a lot more attention than most people were expecting, and this was with in-person well on its way back to full strength. I will be mostly covering in-person events – I’ve never really warmed to online as anything more than a second-best substitute – but I will be dipping into the online fringe to see how it’s going.

The short-run fringe: In a normal year, it is standard practice for almost all performances to run the entire festival – anything less was usually regarded as uncompetitive. This time round, only a minority of performers have gone for this, with a week-long run being more typical. It should be noted that Edinburgh is the outlier here; no other fringe expects shows to run that long. One of the big questions is whether performers decide they like this and want to stick with this, but we won’t know the outcome of that until next year. In the meantime, you need to be aware that, for once, you may have to plan your visit if there’s any particular act you want to see.

The theatre-heavy fringe: Most of the 2021 effects on Edinburgh Fringe were predictable, with precedents largely set by Brighton. But the one change that has come out of the blue is theatre suddenly overtaking comedy as the largest part of the programme. In Brighton, the opposite happened, with comedy dominating the programme more than ever before, so with Edinburgh already quite comedy heavy, one might have expected comedy to dominate further. This is probably being driven by factors we don’t yet understand – I suppose Brighton’s biggest venue working best for comedy in its socially-distanced version might have been a factor, but surely not the only factor. What it does mean is that we need to reconsider the conventional wisdom that comedy is more viable or easier to restart in the aftermath of a pandemic.

b25ly21zoje5ngy5ymuwlwqzmwutndgxys05ogjhlta5ndm5owq2ywq5zdo0njkyymy3os1kzwmzltrhzdetotq3oc0xzgfkzduynzi5mjqThe contentious fringe: The Edinburgh Fringe isn’t popular with everybody, but with one fringe cancelled and the second fringe only a fraction of its normal size, you might think the fringe-haters might be happy with their lot. If so: oh, you naive sweet summer child. Far from giving it a rest, they’ve redoubled their efforts and seem determined to kick the fringe when it’s down. There has been an unbelievable amount of ill-informed hysteria over the Edinburgh Fringe being a Coronavirus death-trap waiting to happen, claiming that all fringe venues are always crowded basements with no ventilation, ignoring the fact that 1) no fringe venue has stated any intention of doing that this year; 2) the Council could easily put a stop to those sorts of venues; and 3) no-one was expecting the 2021 fringe to be anywhere near the size of 2019 anyway. And when Underbelly (for once) did the responsible thing and proposed to set up their big top on The Meadows, where there’s plenty of space, the local residents association put in petty objections about it “privatising” the park, whatever the hell that means. When it was pointed out that they supported temporary venues for other events that are more to the tastes of the local busybodies, they just turned round as said it was different, without any explanation why. There are a lot of valid grievances that Edinburgh locals have over the fringe – but it’s petty little stunts like this that make me want to tell them to fuck off.

The “great reset” fringe?: This one I think is overrated, but I will raise it anyway. There has been a lot of talk of how the year or so out is an opportunity for the Edinburgh Fringe (and indeed theatre in general) to be “kinder”. Can it be made cheaper? Can it be made more diverse? Can it be made more supportive? The best hope for this aspiration becoming a reality is that lots of people have been given the time to think about this, unlike a normal year where finishing one fringe is immediately followed by planning the next one. I have to say, I’m a bit sceptical about the optimism over this one – I’ll probably expand on this is my coverage, but the best way I can summarise this is that I suspect this isn’t as easy as people think. But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Anyway, that’s jumping ahead. Before we can look at the future of the Edinburgh Fringe, we have a current one to get through. This list will be different to a normal year, and plays that run the whole festival are only a minority, but let’s take a look at what’s in store that caught my eye.

Safe choices:

As always, we begin with a list of plays that I’m confident will please anyone who likes the sound of it, and has wide audience appeal. No play appeals to everybody, but it you like the sound of anything in the list, you can’t go wrong by seeing it for real.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

margaret-thatcher-queen-of-sohoThe most notable achievement of Donald Trump (apart from causing everybody to look back to George Dubya Bush and decide he was sort-of okay really) is that he dethroned Margaret Thatcher as the UK’s number one all-time political hate figure. Although it’s hard to imagine now, it was onyl six years ago when the catch-all phrase to win an argument was not “You’re just like Trump!” but “You’re just like Thatcher!” That is, unless you are in Matt Tedford’s alternate timeline where Maggie T has a change of heart over Section 28 and became a gay nightclub hostess instead, complete with her entourage of gay miners chanting “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! We love you!”

However, what this play does so well – apart from being very funny – is that it takes on and challenges the notion that Thatcher is either a national hero or the devil incarnate depending on your views. There was more to politics in the 1980s than one person, and the main target of this play is not Thatcher or Tories but the anti-gay moral panic over a book about a girl with two daddies. I recommend this whether you are a lifelong Thatcher-hater or Maggie’s greatest fan. This shows at Underbelly George Square (that’s where they normally keep the blow-up cow, sadly absent this year) on the 12th-15th August at 8.30 p.m.

Skank

E65153507_343282739681309_3447897748345454592_n-1dinburgh Fringe is supposed to be the great equaliser where unknowns doing plays off their own backs stand a chance against those backed by big theatres and big names, but the expense of the modern fringe makes it difficult to realise this. In practice, the best chance you have is to start off at the smallest fringes and work your way up – and that is exactly what Clementine Bogg-Hargroves did. With only a few performances in Yorkshire to her name, she went down a storm at the Greater Manchester Fringe, and got snapped up by the Vault last year and the Warren at Brighton this year. And new Edinburgh. There are few success stories more in the spirit of the fringe than this.

Skank has previously been described as both a Northern Fleabag and a female Peep Show, but whilst the story is dominated by a lot of funny/excruciating cringe, there is a jarring twist at the end of the story. I won’t spoil it by saying what it is, but it’s something that sharply changes what’s important and what doesn’t matter any more. It shows 17th – 29th August (not Monday) at Pleasance Courtyard at 4.45 p.m.

Waston: the Final Problem

artworks-VfM5OusHbKEjCo7Q-gjOIUw-t500x500I came across this little gem at this year’s Brighton Fringe. It’s a very simple concept, but what it does, it does very well. The Final Problem was supposed to be the end of Sir Arthur Donan’s Sherlock Holmes stories, where Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty plunge to their deaths in Switzerland, before- … well, Sherlock fans, you wouldn’t want me to give the spoiler now, would you. The premise here is that a grief-stricken Dr. Watson (Tim Marriott) is completing his memoirs. He goes on to tell not only the story of Sherlock’s final* case as seen through his eyes, but else a potted history of the rest of the saga, nicely capturing the relationship of the two men.

This is co-written by Ben Coules who dramatised the entirety of Sherlock’s adventures on Radio 4. As a result, this is more of a storytelling format than visual piece. But this does round of some of the rough ends left by Conan Doyle. In the books, Watson’s wife is frequently written in as an afterthought; in this play, Mary Morstan plays the important role in Watson’s story he would approve of. This is at Assembly Roxy on the 17th-22nd August at 12.45 p.m.

[Online] Mimi’s Suitcase

RpjgyUF7_400x400One Safe Choice in the online section of the programme – and I’ll admit part of the reason this one stuck in my mind is that Ana Bayat is possibly the performer most determined to get a review off me. But I am glad because she was persistent, because this was a hidden gem. Originally shown in Edinburgh as part of Just Festival, this is Ana’s own story of migration at the time of the Islamic revolution of Iran. Refugees and migration as a popular subject in fringe theatre at the moment, but this is far from play that ticks the boxes to tell people what they want to hear.

Two things about the story are particularly memorable. The first is the account of the early days after the revolution. Women’s rights are not scrapped on day one but instead are eroded over time. Some of them find ways to fight back through acts of defiance – a valiant but sadly futile battle. And the second more persuasive one is the case made for taking more refugees. The conventional wisdom is that you offer asylum to people whose lives are in danger, but this shows just how much freedom means to someone who doesn’t get to take it for granted. This is available throughout the fringe on Assembly Showcatcher, with live performances with Q&A available at 8 p.m. on the 15th and 29th August.

Northanger Abbey

A late addition to the safe choices, but this one was a last-minute registration. Box Tale Soup are a long-running fringe favourites (and also one of the most determined groups to keep going in 2020 and 2021  – something that gets a lot easier when your two key performers are a married couple). They perform plays that are heavily puppetry-based, and recent fans might know them for their gothic horror.

Northanger Abbey, however, pre-dates their gothic horror trend. This was also their smash hit that catapulted them to fringe stardom. Antonia Chistophers and Noel Byrne play the romantic leads with all the supporting characters played by puppets. Two notable things about the play: firstly, it shows just how good they are and managing a multi-character story as just a two-hander; and secondly, in retrospect, this is a forerunner of the direction they were to go in. Although Jane Austen’s book was meant as a parody of gothic horror, the few nods to the genre were a sign of what was to come. Showing 23rd & 24th August at 3.00 p.m, Underbelly George Square.

Bold choices:

Next on the list are four plays that I have reasons to be hopeful for, but are less testing than the safe choices. Some are new plays, some split opinion and some aren’t for everybody, but if you like the sound of any of these, I think this would be a gamble worth taking.

Screen 9

E7erP7hXoAEWn6lThe reason I’ve been slow to get going with Edinburgh Fringe is that I’ve had my hands full taking part in Durham Fringe as both performer and venue manager, which I didn’t review for obvious reasons. At some point I will get back to this, but in the meantime, I can recommend one of the few acts that came to Durham as a final stop before Edinburgh. This was from Piccolo Theatre but the familiar name to Durham is Kate Barton, manager of the Durham Assembly Rooms. Bold choice instead of safe choice because this is a pretty gloomy topic: the screen 9 referred to here is the the screen of a cinema where one of the worse mass shootings in America took place. This particular one was committed by a guy in a Batman costume, but you won’t hear about that here. The point pushed very strongly is that the news of these shootings should be less about the killer and more about the victims.

This is a piece of verbatim theatre done is conjunction with Survivors Empowered, who got Piccolo Theatre in touch with four survivors, many who lost someone close to them in the attack. But not everything in this goes as expected. When the subject is finally raised of what might be the cause of the thing that keeps happening in America and nowhere else – there is a proper facepalm moment. And the really depressing bit is lack of hope that anyone will learn the obvious lesson needed to stop this happening. Now that you’re warned, this shows at Pleasance EICC on 10th – 29th August (not Monday) at 8.40 p.m. (weeks 1 and 3) and 2.30 p.m. (week 2).

Full disclosure: I performed at the Assembly Rooms a few years ago and worked with Kate Barton in that capacity, but everybody who performed in the Durham Fringe is being treated the same here: no reviews, but recommendations for future performances possible if I liked it.

Mustard [Online]

I’ve become a fan of Eva O’Connor’s work over the last few years. Whatever subject she chooses to write about, she’s always brought an original perspective to it, and never relied on easy soundbites. I think my favourite piece of hers was the much under-rated The Friday Night Effect: in theory, the audience are given choices on what happens next to try to avert tragedy; in practice, the tragedy is inevitable and the questions instead ramp up increasingly difficult moral dilemmas, until left with an agonising choice at the end. Mustard, however, was the one play from 2019 I wanted to see that I just couldn’t schedule The description of this play is more cryptic than most, so I can’t say much about it, but the theme appears to be depression, somehow linked to the nations favourite condiment. This runs through the fringe on Summerhall Online.

The Great Gatsby [Online]

The Wardrobe Ensemble impressed back in 2015 with the surprisingly good 1972: The Future of Sex. What at first looked like an hour-long cringe-fest turned out to cover so many areas, from attitudes that have changed from to 1970s, attitudes that haven’t, small decisions that have lifelong implications whilst being funny throughout. So now they’re taking on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work as a two-woman adaptation. It’s not a Bold Choice for this reason – although I am intrigued how a two-women adaptation would work – but instead for doing this the same time that the Guild of Misrule is currently enjoying its fifth year of a wildly successful immersive adaptation in London. Who in their right mind would try to compete with that? Answer: someone feeling brave. Good luck. Runs throughout the fringe on Fringe Player.

WTSL: Epistles [Online]

The last bold choice is bolder than your average online work. Most online entries are either stage play with a substitute for in-person performance, or a screenplay with a substitute TV broadcast, but occasionally I see someone that is written to work specifically online. This is being done by Whatsapp, over a period of seven days, and this sort of thing could be a novelty, but having seen Malaprop do BlackCatfishMusketerr and Love+, I know they are very clued up on modern communications. A bolder choice than the other three, but it begins on 22nd August via Summerhall Online.

You might like …

This category is generally for shows I’ve seen before where you know what to expect. Like safe choice, if you like the sound of this you shouldn’t be disappointed, but there don’t need wide theatre appeal to be listed. Some may have specialist appeal; others might have wide appeal but not properly count as theatre. But if you like the sound of this you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Police Cops: Badass be the name

The Police Cops trilogy used to be listed under theatre, but is now firmly listed under comedy, having grown way too silly for its former category. With the first episode parodying every 1970s cop TV show ever made and the second episode parodying every 1970s science fiction TV show ever made, the latest instalment does things a little differently, combining the world of vampire-slaying priests with samauri swords with raving dudes from 1990s Madchester with shell suits. With the ensemble of three playing all the characters between them, and all special effects performed with the most low-budget props you can imagine, you get the idea. I do with they’d sometimes resist the temptation to chase laughs at every opportunity – it is sometimes better to lose a laugh than make a character less believable – but the high energy performance they deliver has made them household names on the fringe circuit. You can see the play on the 16th – 29th August at 6.45 p.m. at Assembly George Square. And if that isn’t enough, you can also see the original Police Cops online with Assembly Showcatcher.

The Importance of Being … Earnest?

In close contention with Police Cops for silliest play is Say It Again Sorry? This is like the The Importance of Being Earnest with just one difference: Jack aka Earnest has not showed up for the performance, leaving an intrepid volunteer from the audience to step in his shoes. After that, the rest of the cast frantically guide the new Earnest around for a faithful reproduction of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece. Well, apart from Lane suddenly doubling up as Miss Prism, Gwendolynn drinking herself unconscious on real whisky, Lady Bracknell getting increasingly resentful of working with amateurs, endless liberties with the script and eventually the entire audience up on stage (pretty much). This runs 10th – 15th August at Pleasance EICC at 2.30 p.m., with an extra 6.30 performance on Saturday 14th.

Could it be Magic?

This is another performance I saw at Durham Fringe and it makes it on to my picks as something different. This is a mixture of magic and character comedy. Paul Aitchison plays four comedians each with their own magic tricks, but the real potential of this is the stories of these four magicians. There’s still scope to develop this, but the strongest story I saw was of Colin from “Colin and Carol”. A household name in the 1970s, there is a tragic story that Colin has been left by his showbiz wife and – it is implied – is a secretly gay magician who only married because he was taught only straight white men should be on TV. This shows at Pleasance EICC at 8.00 p.m. on the 16th – 29th August (not Wednesdays).

Daphna Baram: Unmuted

I don’t normally list stand-up comedians in my recommendations, but Daphna Baram, who I saw in Brighton Fringe 2020, sticks in my memory. The autumn fringe was just about the most difficult fringe to do, and the few people who took the plunge in October 2020 have my respect – but the main reason I remembered her was for her surprisingly evil sense of humour. And she looked so harmless. She makes the astute observation that the UK citizenship test is basically a pub quiz, so that new British Citizens are prepared for life in this country, as long as they’re doing a pub quiz. The rest of her jokes she got away with saying, but I daren’t repeat. This is at Laughing Horse at the Counting House on the 19th – 29th August at 12.30 p.m.

Wildcard:

And the last category is for plays where I’ve no idea whether or not they are any good, but they’ve nonetheless grabbed my interest. It is very rare for me to publicise plays I’ve never heard of by groups I don’t know, but one thing did register on my radar:

Those People: a play about QAnon [Online]

This may be a play I’ve never heard of my a group I don’t know, but it’s about a subject I’ve learnt a lot about. There’s been a lot of talk about conspiracy theories, but QAnon makes the flat-earthers sound positively sane. In a parallel world, the idea that Hollywood is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophile and only Donald Trump and the mysterious “Q” can save them would have made a hilarious parody of a conspiracy theory – but in reality this fanaticism is not such a laughing matter. One reason is the infamous storming of Capitol Hill; the other reason, and the subject of this play, is family members – mostly somebody’s parents – who have been lost to what is basically an exploitative cult. I am have read some of the stories, and they’re heartbreaking. Whether the play made about this is any good remains to be seen, but there is a lot to talk about. This verbatim play is on Fringe Player throughout the fringe.

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